Arun Shouries Articles

Spiritual Renewal the Hindu Way -I | May 25, 2008

Spiritual Renewal the Hindu Way -I

The Indian Way of Seeking The Almighty
Arun Shourie

But in looking at the ritual, at the idol, at the concept, why not start with the opposite assumption? Why start by assuming that they are empty, that they are the remnants of superstition? They had occurred to, they had been devised by seers, by persons of great insight. Therefore, why not start with the assumption that the rituals, the idols have great significance, that they address an inner need? If you find that a ritual has become mechanical, why condemn it? Why not find a way to endow it with life? If an idol has become a crutch, an object that induces dependence, why look down on the idol or idolatry? Why not find a way to have it work the potential in it, a way by which people will translate into their lives the virtues they associate with, they have endowed in that idol?

And there is the practical side too. These rituals and idols and legends are in the very blood of our people, in their breathing itself. Once they are given a new meaning, a meaning suited to the needs of the time, would the task not get done that much sooner and better? On the other hand, even if you succeed in condemning and showing up the rituals and idols and concepts, would you not have only demeaned our people in their own eyes, would you not just have made them feel small? And having done that you expect the people to stand up on their own, to do great things !

I summarise, and collate. But that is the point that our reformers have stressed repeatedly — Swami Vivekananda, Gandhiji and others! Why denounce the ritual, why shatter the idol, why look down on the simple festivals of our people? Why not breathe new meaning into it, why not infuse another life into it?

Prayer may not be mere supplication, petitioning, they have taught. It should be a way to imbibe humility, a way to reflect, to learn about oneself. And engaging in service is the way to know oneself, they have taught: As we serve lepers we see fear well up in us: as we serve the weak we see our mind manufacturing reasons to avoid the trouble — ‘They do nothing to help themselves. They are undeserving” — and we see the ‘reason’ as the excuse it is, and thereby learn — Gandhiji’s words — never to sit in judgement over those we shall serve… Sacrifice is vital, but it does not mean killing an animal, they have taught: the things to be sacrificed are hankering, the base instincts in us, the great sacrifice is that of the ego.

Most cannot contemplate the abstract, they cannot be inspired to higher conduct by it, Swami Vivekananda taught having been awakened to the truth by seeing the veneration of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa for the idol of the Mother. They need a concrete representation, an idol they can see and feel, an idol that embodies an ideal, a confluence of virtues. Instead of denigrating or smashing the idol, why not direct them through the idol to the ideal it embodies? Why not teach them that worship of the idol is complete when we see in each of our fellow-beings that spark of divinity which we associate with the idol? That true worship of that idol is service of the fellow being?…

That has been the way of reformers in India: it is as if an algebraist were to leave the expression within the parentheses unchanged but were to change the sign outside. And these reformers have actually worked revolutions in India — while others have just talked revolution. This way of looking at things was brought home to me some years ago by one of the most innovative and one of the most effective reformers India has had in the last haft-century: Shri Pandurang Shastri Athawale.

Bhakti does not consist in sending petitions to God, he has taught, nor is it rooted in fear. But in loving Him through His creation, His creatures. A ritual is the device to arouse certain attitudes in us, to awaken us to, to inspire us to live certain values. Rituals are important because, after much experimentation and deep contemplation, persons of great insight saw that those attitudes and values would be best awakened in us by those steps. Therefore they are not to be dismissed or circumvented lightly. But ft is the attitude — the bhavana — in the ritual which is important: endow all work with that bhavana and all work is consecrated, all work becomes an instrument for taking us towards those values, all work becomes the means to knowing one’s self. And there is the other side to the coin: When we have transformed all our work into a device for knowing our self, we are insulated from the buffetings of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ for ‘failure’ reveals as much of our inner condition to us as ‘success’.

In a sense, because of the work and prodigious output of these great reformers, redefinitions of this kind have become familiar in the last hundred years. But these reformers have done more! They have put the reformulation to work. The reformulations, therefore, are not just ideas, they are ideas which have worked.

By contrast, Shri Pandurang Shastri has led farmers to set up Vrikshmandirs. Temples with no walls and domes, temples of trees alone. Land is secured by the village itself. Everyone nurtures the saplings. Each family in the village takes its turn by rotation to take care of the trees, to keep the temple and its land clean.

In the Amrutalayam mandirs which have been set up in tribal areas by Shastriji’s movement, there is scarcely a wall: There are two or three-foot high brick pillars — from these rise arches of bamboo, and over them and across them stretches a canopy of creepers. Each couple — husband and wife — in the village are pujaris by turn, each couple for a week. They wake up early, bathe, make their way to the temple, clean the courtyard, light the oil lamps, draw the Swastika, and create an atmosphere in which everyone who comes feels welcome and at peace.

Transformation accrues of its own. All families contribute plants and creepers, all work together to tend them: Such distinctions as there might be are thereby eroded. In the Amrutalayams every couple takes turn at being pujaris. People thus learn that function is important not birth – he among us is the brahmin who is a wayfarer on the path of Brahman, Shastriji teaches them. In the week they are pujaris, the couple forswear liquor as much as lies – temperance is thus imbibed, and the habit of sticking to truth. A Vrikshamandir caters to 20-odd villages. Every day, by rotation, different villages send persons to be pujaris for the day: They work together as a team, as priests tending the temple of trees, caring for the soil, weeding: they sit and labour and eat and pray and sing hymns together. The boons accrue automatically overtime: Animosities between villages, distances between castes are dissolved in the pool of devotional labour and working together.

The western-educated Indian, having made people look down on themselves for their ‘primitive’, ‘animist’ beliefs, then tries to teach people to plant trees an utilitarian and, at best, aesthetic grounds. Shastriji’s idiom — like that of Swami Vivekananda, of Gandhiji — is religious.

“There is much we can learn from the trees,” he teaches the people. “Trees are marvellous entities. They send their roots deep into the soil and seek sustenance there. Trees are charity manifest — they teach, by their own example to give generously. Like the Lord Shiva, they inhale poisonous gases and exhale life-giving oxygen. They give fruit to those who throw stones at them: their roots are used for medicinal purposes, their flowers and leaves are used in worship: their fruits satisfy our hunger: and their dark cool shade invites the weary traveller to rest. Trees do not expect anything in return for the service they render us: they do not expect even thanks from us: it is their very nature to be unchanging in their generosity and compassion. Truly, therefore, there is much we can learn from the trees… God is not hidden in these temples but reveals Himself in the guise of trees. This God is clothed in the magnificent finery of spring. Vayu, the wind-God fuss Him to sleep and brilliant stars in the heavens above send their devotion to Him. He is bathed by the clouds and the birds sing His glory with joy. Your temple of trees nestles in the loving bosom of Mother Earth. It has neither doors nor windows: it has only the abundance of your devotion. Your temple is the abode of living, growing and flowering idols in the form of trees. When you enter this temple do so with a sense of worship: while watering the trees feel the presence of God. This is your spiritual discipline and your way of life. God exists inside the temple and outside the temple too. In worshipping our deities like Hanuman, Tulsi etc, we worship the divinity which is immanent in all beings, in plants, in trees…”

The least of the advantages is that this idiom goes straight to the heart of the people. The more important point is that the teaching builds on the life of the people, it starts with a deep respect for what the people already know and do: The teaching leads them to see the deep meaning in what they do as a matter of course. As certainly as the idiom of our westernised elite — ‘Superstition,’ ‘Primitive animism’ — undermines the self-respect of the people and thereby their ability to help themselves, just as surely the idiom of reformers like Shastriji enhances the self-regard and ability of the people.

There is another point that enhances these: The secret lies in what the followers are urged to put to use. Tribals know how to nurture trees and creepers, that skill is what they are urged to contribute — they see that skill is special, that it is capable of divine work. This is a key concept in Shastriji’s Swadhyaya movement.

Ever so often when we feel particularly holy, or grateful, or guilty, or fearful, we console ourselves by giving something in charity, by making a donation to a temple. But the phrase, Shastriji teaches, is to give tan (body), man (mind), dhan (wealth) — in that order, one’s time and energy, one’s mind and devotion, and only then money etc. Persons who encounter the Swadhyaya movement, are moved by the remarkable transformation which it has brought about in the lives of lakhs, and approach Shastriji with donations of money are politely told that donations cannot be accepted till they have given of their own time, and their particular skill: An accountant must first help look after the accounts of one of the projects, an engineer must first help recharge the well…

The special skill of fishermen is in catching fish, in making and repairing boats. This skill, this work has been transformed into dharma-work. By contributing their labour and earning from a bit of their catch over time, fishing communities have built and bought a motor-boat each, the matsyagandha, the ‘Floating Temple.’ It is cared for as a temple should be, fishermen taking turns to man the boat for the day. Earnings from the catch of the matsyagandha belong to the community as a whole. They are used to help those who are in need within the community, to buy medicines for the sick, to help those without jobs set themselves up, and to acquire civic amenities. Communities of farmers have been led in the same way to transform barren land into wealth of the community.

Fasts, festivals, pilgrimages have been similarly transformed. Where the movement has taken hold, on Balipratipada day, the New Year day by the Hindu calendar, all men, women and children from a village visit the neighbouring village. At the outskirts of the latter village they draw lots to determine the house at which they shall have lunch: the hospitality is returned by the first village in the same way. The consequences form as a matter of course: The feeling of community is strengthened, taboos of caste, the distances of income et cetera are overcome, families develop bonds.

A pilgrimage is not just a journey to petition a bank-manager, Shastriji has taught Swadhyayees — It means withdrawing one’s mind from the pursuits and preoccupations of our daily existence. Swadhyayees, therefore, visit the pilgrimage centres of course — as these have been identified by our seers as specially charged places — but in addition they visit villages on the way to and around those centres to disseminate teaching of the Vedic religion and the Gita.

Indeed, these perigerations in the villages have become a keystone of the movement. They are known as Bhakti-pheris, devotional tours. Every Swadhyayee devotes at least 15 days a year to touring in the villages. His or her sole object is his or her own spiritual growth, he goes merely to learn, to get to know, to make friends. He must accept absolutely nothing from those he visits, he must politely refuse even ordinary hospitality. Benefits accrue in many ways, at many levels. The spiritual growth makes for a better society. The ones he gets to know, see his conduct and are thereby encouraged to improve their own lives. Often the outcomes transcend individuals.

In the Saurashtra region, the hostility of Mers — mainly agriculturists — and Kharwas — mainly fisher folk — had been legendary, it was murderous. All efforts to keep them from assaulting each other had failed. Had the matter gone to one of our modern experts in ‘Conflict Resolution’ he would have drawn up a list of ‘issues’, suggested formulae for give-and-take and drawn up a contract, a treaty. But no specific issue was the cause. When the age-old enmity was put to Shastriji, he focussed on changing the atmosphere, the air and water so to say. Swadhyayees began visiting each community. Both communities developed trust in them. Eventually both appealed to Shastriji to bring them together.

Shastriji did not seal that consummation by drawing up a contract. He told them to organise a Satyanarain puja – there must be 1,008 couples from each community: they must sit alternately: a Kharwa couple, a Mer couple, a Kharwa couple: each couple must perform the puja. And to avoid expense, Shastriji simplified the puja so that it could be completed with just a few flowers, water and rice. When the puja had been completed by such large numbers from each community, by such large intermingled numbers, and with Satyanarain as their witness the leaders of both communities forswore hostility to each other…

As will be evident such experiments of our reformers are a result of deep reflection and insight. They are innovative ideas. They are ideas which build on notions and practices which lie embedded deep in the psyche of our people. For that reason they are Indian ideas. And, as we shall see, they are ideas that work.

Part II – The Buddha’s Garment

Part III – Signs of Renewal

The Observer
January 12,1996

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